“Can you walk a little?” I asked Emma. “Or at least hobble?”
She locked her knees and loosened her grip on my waist, testing her weight. “I can limp.”
“Then here’s what we’re going to do: slide past it, backs to the wall, through that gap there. It’s not a lot of space, but if we’re careful …”
Addison saw what I meant and shrank back into the phone booth. “Do you think we should get so close to it?”
“What if it wakes up while we’re …?”
“It won’t,” I said, faking confidence. “Just don’t make any sudden moves—and whatever you do, don’t touch it.”
“You’re our eyes now,” Addison said. “Bird preserve us.”
I chose a nice long shard from the floor and slid it into my pocket. Shuffling two steps to the wall, we pressed our backs to the cold tiles and began inching toward the hollow. Its eyes moved as we did, locked on me. A few creeping sidesteps later and we were enveloped by a pocket of hollow-stink so foul, it made my eyes water. Addison coughed and Emma cupped a hand over her nose.
“Just a little farther,” I said, my voice reedy with forced calm. I took the glass from my pocket, gripping it with the pointed end out, then took another step, and another. We were close enough now that I could’ve touched the hollow with an outstretched arm. I heard its heart knocking inside its ribs, the beat quickening with each step we took. It was straining against me, fighting with every neuron to wrest my clumsy hands from its controls. Don’t move, I said, mouthing the words in English. You’re mine. I control you. Don’t move.
I sucked in my chest, lined up and laddered each vertebra against the wall, then crab-walked into the tight gap between the wall and the hollow.
Don’t move, don’t move.
Slide, shuffle, slide. I held my breath while the hollow’s quickened, wet and wheezing, a vile black mist blooming from its nostrils. The urge to devour us must’ve been excruciating. So was my urge to run, but I ignored it; that would’ve been acting like prey, not master.
Don’t move. Do not move.
Another few steps, a few more feet, and we’d be past it. Its shoulder a hairsbreadth from my chest.
—and then it did. In one swift motion the hollow swiveled its head and pivoted its body to face me.
I went rigid. “Don’t move,” I said, this time aloud, to the others. Addison buried his face between his paws and Emma froze, her arm squeezing mine like a vise. I steeled myself for what was to come—its tongues, its teeth, the end.
Get back, get back, get back.
English, English, English.
Seconds passed during which, astonishingly, we weren’t killed. But for the rising and falling of its chest, the creature seemingly had turned once again to stone.
Experimentally, moving by millimeters, I slid along the wall. The hollow followed me with slight turns of its head—locked onto me like a compass needle, its body in perfect sympathy with mine—but it didn’t follow, didn’t open its jaws. If whatever spell I’d cast had been broken, we’d already be dead.
The hollow was only watching me. Awaiting instructions I didn’t know how to give. “False alarm,” I said, and Emma breathed an audible sigh of relief.
We slid out of the gap, peeled ourselves from the wall, and hurried away as fast as Emma could limp. When we’d put a little distance between us and the hollow, I looked back. It had turned all the way around to face me.
Stay, I muttered in English. Good.
* * *
We passed through a veil of steam and the escalator came into view, frozen into stairs, its power cut. Around it glowed a halo of weak daylight, a tantalizing envoy from the world above. World of the living, world of now. A world where I had parents. They were here, both of them, in London, breathing this air. A stroll away.
Oh, hi there!
Unthinkable. Still more unthinkable: not five minutes ago, I’d told my father everything. The Cliff’s Notes version, anyway: I’m like Grandpa Portman was. I’m peculiar. They wouldn’t understand, but at least now they knew. It would make my absence feel less like a betrayal. I could still hear my father’s voice, begging me to come home, and as we limped toward the light I had to fight a sudden, shameful urge to shake off Emma’s arm and run for it—to escape this suffocating dark, to find my parents and beg forgiveness, and then to crawl into their posh hotel bed and sleep.
That was most unthinkable of all. I could never: I loved Emma, and I’d told her so, and I wouldn’t leave her behind for anything. And not because I was noble or brave or chivalrous. I’m not any of those things. I was afraid that leaving her behind would rip me in half.
And the others, the others. Our poor, doomed friends. We had to go after them—but how? A train hadn’t entered the station since the one that spirited them away, and after the blast and gunshots that had rocked the place, I was sure there’d be no more coming. That left us two options, each one terrible: go after them on foot through the tunnels and hope we didn’t meet any more hollows, or climb the escalator and face whatever was waiting for us up there—most likely a wight mop-up crew—then regroup, reassess.
I knew which option I preferred. I’d had enough of the dark, and more than enough of hollows.
“Let’s go up,” I said, urging Emma toward the stalled escalator. “We’ll find somewhere safe to plan our next move while you get your strength back.”